Changing environmental realities disproportionately threaten economic, political, and quality of life prospects in Central Asia.
Much speculation, deliberation, and fear over climate change has taken place this century, always under the assumption that climate change was an imminent threat, but a relatively distant one. However, the reality is that shifts in climate and natural resources are already well under way, and one of the most affected corners of the globe is Central Asia. The countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are regularly constricted by challenges with water rights, heating infrastructure, oil production, farming conditions, shifting temperatures, and the economic, political, and social problems which arise from them.
The reality of Central Asia is that despite significant growth in terms of population, share of global GDP, and general prospects, climate and resource challenges are among the major roadblocks for development in the region. 1 Water coming from the mountainous regions is held back by dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at the detriment of the arid lowlands elsewhere - precisely where most viable farmland and energy production occurs. Economies are threatened by temperatures increasing more dramatically than the rest of the world and scarcer and scarcer rainfall. 2 The historically rich Fergana Valley region has been heavily impacted by changing water and land usage caused by climate change and exacerbated by interstate and interethnic tensions. 3 By most projections, Central Asia will be an area most affected by climate change.
Political strife and questionable governments across Central Asia have only furthered existing conflicts. Longtime ruler of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, who ran an authoritarian, isolationist state with numerous human rights concerns, threatened Kyrgyzstan repeatedly over water shortages in an effort to protect the cotton industry. Only since his death has successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev thawed relations. Emomali Rahmon and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the current leaders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan respectively, share much in common with Karimov and are generally unreceptive to working with other Central Asian states while also keeping citizens intentionally distrustful and uninformed. Additionally, both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have faced similar issues and at times unstable rule. Relationships with nearby global powers Russia and China and security concerns with Afghanistan provide some shared basis but can also complicate regional dynamics.
The most significant point of contention for Central Asian states has been, and will continue to be, water. The reality is that although Central Asia does not actually lack water resources, they are almost entirely in control of the upstream states - Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Both countries have constructed, both during the Soviet era and post-independence, massive dam projects to harness their high elevations and snow melt, to in turn power their countries. 4 Pre-independence, energy would have come in the form of cheap coal and gas used for much needed heating in the winter. 5 Since 1991, this energy scarcity has been answered, partially, through dams. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan want water to be released when power is needed in the winter months; however, problems arise mainly because the downstream states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan need that water for crops in the springtime. This has led to outbreaks on borders, diplomatic actions, threats of war, and ethnic tensions periodically since 1991. 6 In fact, the deadly 2021 flareup of the ongoing border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was started due to a local water dispute. 7
Furthermore, anyone roughly familiar with Soviet history is aware of the Aral Sea, now colloquially called the ‘Aralkum’ (Aral Desert). In the past, it was supplied by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya and was the fourth largest lake in the world. However, Soviet policies of diverting snow melt water for crops, mainly cotton, were the beginning of the end for the Aral Sea. 8 As fresh water intake was heavily limited, salinity and agricultural runoff concentrations increased which led to the sea drying up and the remaining dust toxic. Arguably the largest ecological disaster of the 20th century, independent Uzbekistan continued Soviet policies for economic reasons which only caused further damage. The collapse of the Aral Sea has been costly for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with the economic benefits evaporating and public health risk ever-present. Despite segments of the sea still existing and bilateral efforts undertaken, water capacity hovers near an all-time low - even after a strong winter season. 9 Climate change and reduced rainfall will only deteriorate the environment and conditions for those nearby, and place greater emphasis on the need for water.
Despite recent regional cooperation, especially between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, controversy over water is alive and well. A recent land exchange which granted control of a border reservoir to Uzbekistan was met with hostility from local Kyrgyz citizens, culminating in a boost for the political opposition. 10 Even though Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov’s deal helped facilitate common ground on water supply in the region, protests and allegations of a coup plot were met with imprisonment and a crackdown on opposition. 11 The foundational nationalism of Central Asian states is itself an obstacle to a truly regional solution for countering and adapting to climate change. However, other projects, namely the Kambar-Ata-1 dam in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, appear to be a source of teamwork between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan - a level of cooperation that hasn’t really been seen since the Soviet Union. 12
Energy production and contribution to climate change
In examining climate change’s effects on Central Asia, it is natural to look into how each respective country contributes to global emissions and consumption. In terms of carbon emissions, the clear leaders are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, both of which are comfortably ahead of the other three nations and compared to most of the world, at over 10 metric tons per capita. 13 Overall, Central Asia is not an incredibly ‘green’ region and practices of burning coal, polluting the environment, and oil extraction are commonplace; however, it is crucial to note that the primary markets for Turkmenistani and Kazakhstani oil, the main culprit for their high carbon emissions, are the West, Russia, and China. Moreover, everyday practices which seem intentionally harmful to the environment are in most cases a necessity and reality in underdeveloped and poorer areas. The reality is that Central Asian nations disproportionately bear the consequences of climate change, and are less-equipped to deal with those implications.
The reliance on oil and gas in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and lack of diversification means that shifting to a more sustainable model is challenging. Reorganizing entire sectors of the economy, which have been in place since the Soviets and are relied upon by a multitude of other nations, is no small task. Moreover, as climate change reduces farming outputs, these states will become more and more focused on energy production, which in turn puts more greenhouse gasses in the air and adversely affects the environment. In this sense, high production levels and oil exports are an inevitability which will likely delay green solutions and leave economies more susceptible to the resource curse. 14
At the end of the day, Central Asia’s growing issues with climate change are a story about past and present development, policies borne out of politics and history, destabilization, and, ultimately, how new realities affect people on the ground.
General underdevelopment in the region has led to less preparedness in the event of both gradual and sudden climate crises, while at the same time, has incentivized governments to grow economically to improve the daily lives of their citizens. Central Asia faces difficulties with that in part due to direct climate effects but also political instability, which in turn plays a role in policy, both cooperatively and unilaterally. As climate change becomes more apparent, instability is likely to rise under already turbulent and oppressive governments.
In addition to a lack of political stability, many Central Asians could become food insecure in the near future as locally grown crops diminish in yields, both as a result of water scarcity but also rising temperatures. Heating deficits, which are already a problem, will likely worsen due to colder winters becoming the norm. Clean drinking water in the downstream countries is another cause for concern. Traditional ways of life, especially agriculture and modern nomadism, may become unviable in the very near future. At the same time, growth may also be impossible given climate and geographic constraints threatening existing sectors of economies. Stifled opportunities, lack of basic necessities, and general instability are all on the cards depending on how Central Asian nations and the world reacts.
1 The Economy of Central Asia: A Fresh Perspective - Summary. Almaty, Bishkek, Moscow: Eurasian Development Bank, 2022.
2 Azour, Jihad, Hasan Dudu,and Ling Zhu. “How the Middle East and Central Asia Can Better Address Climate Challenges.” November 29, 2023. https://www.imf.org/en/Blogs/Articles/2023/11/29/how-the-middle-east-and-central-asia-can-better-address-climate-challenges.
3 “Livelihood Conflicts in the Ferghana Valley.” Climate Diplomacy. https://climate-diplomacy.org/case-studies/livelihood-conflicts-ferghana-valley.
4 O’Donnell, Lynne. “The Water Wars Are Coming to Central Asia.” July 31, 2023. https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/07/31/afghanistan-uzbekistan-water-war-central-asia/.
5 Minot, Thomas. “The Quiet Instability of Central Asian Water Politics.” The Governance Post. May 19, 2022. https://www.thegovernancepost.org/2022/05/quiet-instability-of-central-asian-water-politics/.
7 Talant, Bermet. “How Is Climate Change Affecting Central Asia?.” July 1, 2022. https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-climate-change-water-talant/31924317.html.
8 O’Donnell, “The Water Wars Are Coming to Central Asia.”
9 “Water Level Rises in Aral Sea for First Time in Years.” Qazaqstan Monitor. March 5, 2023. https://qazmonitor.com/news/1502/water-level-rises-in-aral-sea-for-first-time-in-years.
10 Ibraimov, Bakyt. “Kyrgyzstan: Dam handover plans rouse opposition forces.” October 19, 2022. https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-dam-handover-plans-rouse-opposition-forces.
11 Imanaliyeva, Ayzirek. “The Kempir-Abad saga: Ground zero of Kyrgyzstan’s latest authoritarian turn.” May 4, 2023. https://eurasianet.org/the-kempir-abad-saga-ground-zero-of-kyrgyzstans-latest-authoritarian-turn.
12 Rickleton, Chris. “Now With Neighbors' Support, Is Kyrgyzstan's Mega-Dam Dream Viable?.” January 11, 2023. https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-naryn-river-hydropower-plant-uzbekistan-kazakhstan/32218985.html.
13 Historical GHG Emissions. Climate Watch, 2020. https://www.climatewatchdata.org/ghg-emissions?calculation=PER_CAPITA&end_year=2020&gases=co2®ions=ECA&start_year=1990
14 “Central Asia’s Energy Risks.” Crisis Group. May 24, 2007. https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/central-asia-s-energy-risks.